Hollywood blockbusters based upon popular American comic book characters seem to divide audience opinion each and every blockbuster season. Shane Black’s upcoming Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey Jr., needs to build upon the commercial and critical success of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble (2012), rather than aping the flat, bland narrative events of 2010’s Iron Man 2. The very best superhero movies work on two levels, with both kids and adults enjoying the double-edged humour top-draw efforts can provide. The ultimate insult to the comic book fan is, of course, Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, who epitomises everything that people who don’t like the genre think of those that do. But is this an unfair stereotype?
Think back to the original Adam West Batman TV series, based on the über-rich Bruce Wayne alias of the same name – who doesn’t enjoy its camp, knowing humour? Perhaps the comic book movies that really do fall between two stools are those that miss the trick of appealing to audiences at different levels? Those movies that take life a little too seriously (like Zack Snyder’s failed adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen), in other words. In these cases, we’re firmly in Comic Book Guy territory. But instead of concentrating on the bad, let’s take a look at some comic book hero movies we love for all the right reasons. Atop of the list is arguably Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) – Batman’s Gotham City without rules. Here, the criminals’ ripostes to Batman as promised at the end of Batman Begins (2005) see the Joker covered in war paint.
This is clever stuff, brilliantly executed in particular by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, very ably supported by Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Aaron Eckhart. Next up is The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi’s 2004 classic, Spider-Man 2. In this sequel, the red and blue web-slinger has established himself as New York’s number one public defender. But despite his superhero success, Peter Parker’s less heroic personal life is in decline as he can’t pay his bills or keep his grades up. It’s the balance between the superhero and Peter’s more mundane day-to-day problems that makes this movie strike such a chord – particularly with young cinemagoers who see their own hopes and desires reflected in Peter’s struggles with normal life. Finally, at number three we’ve gone for the film that really set the standard for the modern age of superheroes; namely, Richard Donner’s 1978 extravaganza Superman – The Movie. The big-name cast was perfectly complemented by the hitherto unknown Christopher Reeve who really became Superman and Clark Kent for people of a certain age, whilst Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor brought a whole new level of humour to the genre’s baddie – grandstanding stuff. Look out for the return of Clark Kent in the Snyder-directed Man of Steel.